Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Photo Credit: The Smithsonian
American Museum of American History visitors are made to feel uncomfortable. Some cry. And hopefully, some leave, a slightly changed individual. It is the exhibitors who stop to view the actual Greensboro lunch counter where four North Carolina A&T freshmen changed history, where this occurs. On February 1, 1960, Ezell A. Blair Jr., now known as Jibreel Khazan, Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil and David L. Richmond walked into the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., sat in the “whites only” section, and ordered coffee.
They were refused, as all Blacks were at this time due to the Jim Crow segregation laws of the era. They refused and instead, sat “passively protesting,” waiting for their coffee. The exhibit has been open since the museum’s reopening in November 2008.The counter exhibit is accompanied by a live program led by actor Xavier Carnegie, 30, who portrays civil rights activist, Samuel P. Leonard.
The interactive presentation allows visitors to take part in a non-violent sit-in training session similar to what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went through in the 1960s. The program is historically accurate since script is based on the actual SNCC training that the men and women who participated in the civil rights movement used.
“One of the main reasons we did this program is that many people don’t understand the significance of what these men went through,” Carnegie said about having participants do a mock sit-in. “When you get people to sit in the chairs and have people stand next to them and just stare even without saying or touching them they begin to understand even a fraction of what these people went through.”
The four men may not have been “monumental” before the sit-in, but they soon became well known in the civil rights movement. This sit-in was one of the first to be initiated by people so young, provoking a series of protests by students, the community, and civil rights organizations nationally.
Eventually, the movement urged people to boycott stores that practiced segregation. In only two months, 54 cities in nine states were holding protests and six months later the counter at the Greensboro Woolworth was desegregated.
Now, 50 years later, America and the world have changed drastically from the racially charged era of the 60s.For the first time in history, a Black man is president of the United States. More than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples were interracial in 2005, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970. And people of all races and ethnic groups continue to band together to erase the still-present marks of prejudice in America and beyond.
“It is important for people to be able to connect with regular people, not just people like Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” said Mark Brodsky, an architect who was visiting the exhibit. “These people were not big speakers or activists. They were just like you and I.”
As 15-year-old Michael Smith and his friends surveyed the exhibit watching the presentation intently, they began to conceptualize a time far removed from the carefree days of today. “I like the exhibit; I think it’s really good,” Smith said. “There were many things that I didn’t know or that they don’t really teach us in school that I found out today.